Friday, October 10, 2014

Piper Laurie Elevates "Smoke Signal"

By her own admission, Piper Laurie didn't get a lot of good roles as a contract player at Universal in the 1950s. However, one of the exceptions was the blandly-titled Smoke Signal, an above-average Western that avoids the genre's most common cliches.

The action gets off to a quick start when a small Cavalry unit discovers a dead scout with an arrow in his back. It doesn't take long to realize that the previously-peaceful Utes are on the warpath. When they attack the soldiers, the Cavalry troop seeks refuge in a nearby fort. The situation there isn't much better. It turns out the fort has been surrounded for days and the scout sent to seek reinforcement--well, we know that he didn't get very far.

Dana Andrews and William Talman.
The newly-arrived Captain Harper (William Talman) discovers an old acquaintance, Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), tied to a hitching post. A former Cavalry officer, Halliday deserted long ago and joined the Utes' tribe. Harper believes the Indians want to free Halliday, but the latter claims his life is in danger, too. He urges Harper to transport two boats to a nearby canyon river and seek escape by navigating the rapids.

Augmented with stunning scenery, Smoke Signal zips along efficiently, mixing character-driven scenes with action sequences involving Indian attacks or the perils of the river. Although Dana Andrews--who was on the downside of his career--is billed as the lead, it's Piper Laurie who holds the film together.

Piper Laurie and Andrews.
She portrays the daughter of the fort's commanding officer, who died at the hands of the Utes. In many Westerns, Laurie's character would have been a bitter daughter intent on revenge. However, in Smoke Signal, she's a strong, but quiet character intrigued with Halliday and why he forfeited his Army career. Some of her best scenes are simply intent looks--filled with curiosity--directed toward Halliday when she believes others are not watching.

Smoke Signal is peppered with familiar faces, to include Talman (Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason), William Schallert (the father on The Patty Duke Show), and Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke). However, the other cast standout is Douglas Spencer as a trapper that joins the soldiers. Surprisingly, the likable Spencer spent most of his Hollywood career as Ray Milland's stand-in. His best-known performance as a supporting player was as the reporter Scotty in 1951's The Thing.

Dana Andrews, who was still struggling with alcoholism at that time, gives an acceptable performance. Unfortunately, his character's eventual romance with Laurie doesn't work at all. First, at age 46, he was almost twice the age of his co-star. More importantly, the script doesn't give the two characters enough time together before they're smitten with each other. There are other flaws in Smoke Signal, too, starting with the unlikely reason that there just happens to be two boats in the fort.

A better title?
Still, it's an interesting Western and deserves credit for not turning the Indians into nameless villains. Halliday speaks of them sympathetically and the film's true bad guy turns out not to be one of the Utes. For the record, there are some smoke signals in the movie. Of course, that's just one more reason why I don't like the film's title. If the studio was going to go in that smokey direction, then--for the sake of accuracy--they should have called the movie Smoke Signals. Or better yet, why not go with the film's French title: The River of Last Chance?

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